Friday, February 22, 2013

Engineers hope to keep winning skein on the road

   ITHACA -- How far can Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's winning streak go? Can the Engineers extend their ECAC Hockey winning streak to eight games on the road at Cornell and Colgate?
     Six of the eight victories within the streak have been at Houston Field House, though it should be added that RPI -- except for its penalty killing -- was quite impressive in victories at St. Lawrence (4-3 in overtime) and at Clarkson (6-2).
    Despite the fact that Cornell and Colgate have gone through some pretty rough stretches of late -- they are tied for 10th place in the 12-team league with 5-10-3 records -- they figure to be at their best, and spurred by revenge, each having suffered a one-goal defeat at HFH last month.
    Even one victory this weekend, provided the Engineers can get three or four points next weekend when they close the regular season at home against Clarkson and St. Lawrence, would give them a great chance to earn a top-four finish and subsequent bye in the preliminary round of the league playoffs.
   Power play outstanding: Over the first eight ECACH games, the RPI power play produced just two goals in 40 tries. Such as stat -- 5.0 percent -- will lose any team hockey games at any level.
   In a breathtaking turnaround, the power play has been successful one-third of the time -- 11 of 33.
   That's propped up the season's efficiency rate to 21.7 percent -- 26-for-120. In league play, it's climbed to an eye-popping -- considering the poor start -- 19.7 percent (15-for-76).
   Appert spoke at great length about the decision to move 2011 All-American defenseman Nick Bailen -- and his hard shot from the point -- to the front of the net.
   "Being at the net front allows Nick to be creative and ... puts him in competitive situations.
   "At the top of the power play, you need to be more of a thinker and a distributor, and a shooter at times (all of which Bailen has been successful at in the past), whereas, at the net front, being down low where he is, has really freed him up to play to his strengths."
    Bailen's immediate acceptance of the decision "is real credit to him.
   "He could have taken it the wrong way," Appert said. "He's an All-American, power-play defenseman, who by definition are supposed to be on the point on the power play. And he was very good for us up there two years ago when we went to the national tournament.
   "So, it's a real credit to him and his wanting to win and help him our team that he took that adjustment the right way and has thrived within it, because it's a little outside the box and his acceptance in buying into and owning that spot have really helped our power play take a big step.
   "What he does also," Appert continued about Bailen, "is that he wins puck battles and keep plays alive. Everybody talks about skill but if you don't win puck battles on the power play, your power play is nothing. Nothing. Because there are always puck battles; faceoffs, dump-ins, shots on goal that go to the corner and you have to go retrieve them and the more you can win those little battles and then earn a second and third possession within (one trip in) the zone your chances of scoring increase dramatically. Their penalty kill is stuck out there, they're tired.
   "If you lose that, (the puck's) it's down the ice, you get frustrated, you have to go back out (and get onside), they can change (their PK unit), they're fresh. Nick has kept a lot of plays alive which has allowed us to take advantage of tired penalty killers."
   Sophomore center Jacob Laliberte, RPI's leader with 14 power-play points (Bailen is second with nine) echoed Appert's words on pucks battles with regard to the improved power-play numbers.
   "Winning more puck battles has been a key because without the puck, you can't to anything."
   Appert said it was not an easy decision to move Bailen down low on the power play.
   "If it wasn't different for us (coaches), we would have done it a long time ago.
   "I think part of it is not being sure we had someone to take over at the top (junior Bo Dolan has done so nicely) and, it's worked in the past, and you keep thinking ... he (Bailen) he was there for a reason and that's what he was recruited to do and he's been good up there, and you get stuck on that sometimes."
    Appert compared the decision with that of moving defenseman Bryan Brutlag (class of 2011) to forward halfway through his junior season.
   "I probably should have moved to forward earlier than I did," he said. "Sometimes you have pre-conceived notions, or what has happened in the past can impact your decision-making on current events and you have to really take a step back and see what is best for your team at that moment and what your team needs. With Bryan, our program got better immediately when he went to forward and for the next year and one-half, we were a really good hockey team.
   "I think it's been the same with Nick going to the front of the net on the power play," Appert continued. "Our power play effectiveness has increased immediately and dramatically."
  "No way": Some have suggested that Bailen be moved to forward. They weren't all joking.
   "They're wrong. Dead wrong," Appert said. "He defends his tail off. I'll take him on my 'D' corps anywhere, any time, any team. That guys blocks shots; he's our leading shot-blocker. He wins puck battles, he breaks us out of our zone effectively. And he provides an element that we don't have otherwise and that most teams in the country don't have, which is a weapon jumping in the rush as a defenseman.
   "I've received (similar) comments as well and they're flat-out wrong," he continued. "He's not only good offensively, Nick Bailen's a very good defensive player and his plus-minus rating (+10) states that. You don't get plusses for power-play goals."
    O'Grady still out: Marty O'Grady's recurring concussions could keep him out for the remainder of his senior season under a worst-case scenario. He's missed the past six games and while he'll be out again this weekend and almost certainly next week, hopefully he can return in the postseason.
   Appert says that junior winger Matt Tinordi's knee injury isn't as serious "as we initially thought" and hopefully, the Engineers can get a first-round bye, advance to the ECACH semifinals and both he and O'Grady can get back in the lineup.


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